Joyce Sutphen’s poem “What the Heart Cannot Forget” has been weaving itself in and out of my thoughts and memories today. I am also thinking of non-Norman Rockwell Thanksgivings and how many of my friends and family who have empty seats at their table are feeling this week.
Our family–or some of us who were nearby and not on the west coast–celebrated Thanksgiving last Friday night with our thankful feast, as one of the granddaughters named it. I did not realize when I counted the number of places to set that I had miscounted. Instead of 10, I should have had 9 places set.
There it was: that empty plate, unused napkin, empty glass, so obvious once everyone was seated.
I know I am not the best at math–I love the patterns of words more than those of numbers, but how could I have miscounted? I really meant to set 11 places, but two family members could not come at the last minute.
Maybe that empty seat was for Amazing Grace who left us in January and whose daughter, my cousin, joined us for the thankful feast this year. Maybe it was for my mother, whose oyster dressing recipe I haven’t yet dared to try–she died almost three years ago now. Or Aunt Lucile, whose story telling would have had us all nodding and laughing, on this the first Thanksgiving she isn’t with us. For the baby we never met in this life who did not survive a pregnancy.
No, that empty seat was, I am now sure, Elizabeth’s seat.
Even though it’s been 17 Thanksgivings since her laughter made our gathering warmer, I miss her so much–and especially at Thanksgiving, which comes right between the anniversary of her death in October and her birthday on the last day of December.
The last lines of Sutphen’s poem read:
And the skin remembers its scars, and the bone aches
where it was broken. The feet remember the dance,
and the arms remember lifting up the child.
The heart remembers everything it loved and gave away,
everything it lost and found again, and everyone
it loved, the heart cannot forget.
My heart remembered that she still has a place at our table and of course, always in our family. And my heart remembers her dance.
You can read the whole poem here.